Bush wants NATO to enlarge and stay in Afghanistan

(dpa) - US President George W Bush called Wednesday on NATO to stay in Afghanistan for as long as it takes to defeat the terrorists and pushed for the alliance to expand deep into Eastern Europe.

"Our alliance must maintain its resolve and finish the fight in Afghanistan," he said in a speech delivered at the National Bank of Savings in Bucharest, just hours before the opening of a summit of NATO leaders in the Romanian capital.

While defeating the Taliban "must be the top priority of the NATO alliance," Bush conceded that the struggle in Afghanistan could not be won "by force of arms alone."

One of the main issues up for discussion at the Bucharest summit - due to open Wednesday evening - is the launch of a "vision statement," a document clarifying why NATO is in Afghanistan and what it hopes to achieve.

NATO operations in Afghanistan have been handicapped by disagreements among allies over whether to focus on fighting the Taliban or supporting the country's reconstruction.

Bush acknowledged as much on Wednesday, saying, "We must also help the Afghan government strengthen democratic institutions, provide essential services, create jobs and opportunity, and show its people that freedom can lead to a better life."

The NATO summit is taking place amid a new low in relations with Russia.

One of the bones of contention is US plans to install a missile defence system with bases in Poland and the Czech Republic - a project which the Kremlin views with suspicion.

Bush defended the US stance on Wednesday, saying the need for missile defence in Europe was "real" and "urgent."

"Our intelligence community assesses that, with continued foreign assistance, Iran could test an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States and all of Europe should it choose to do so," he said.

Russia is also alarmed by the support given by the United States and other NATO members to the idea of offering Georgia and Ukraine a so-called Membership Action Plan (MAP).

In Bucharest after a visit to Kiev, Bush said Georgia and Ukraine had "inspired the world" with their pro-democracy revolutions and should be rewarded and encouraged with a MAP.

Such a move would also "send a signal throughout the region" that the duo "are, and will remain, sovereign and independent states," Bush said.

But Russia's ambassador to NATO, Dmitry Rogozin, has dismissed the idea, saying Moscow views the MAP status as "a point of a no return."

"If MAPs are granted to Ukraine and Georgia at the summit in Bucharest, it will lead to a dramatic evolution in our relations," Russian media quoted him as saying Tuesday.

While in Bucharest, Bush was due to meet Romanian President Traian Basescu and then hold face-to-face talks with NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer ahead of the summit's opening.

One of the most hard-fought decisions to be taken at the Bucharest get-together is set to be whether to invite Croatia, Albania and Macedonia into the 26-member alliance.

While Croatia's entry is seen as a foregone conclusion, NATO experts have strong reservations about Albania and Macedonia.

Macedonia in particular is in dispute with NATO member Greece, which is threatening to veto its entry because it views Macedonia's name as implying a territorial claim on Greece's northern province.

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